Here’s a longer version of my Calendar cover story from today’s Los Angeles Times…
It’s not easy being a hard-luck hero. Just ask Seth Rogen who, for the better part of four years, has been trying to get “The Green Hornet” feature film off the ground despite changes to the script, the tone, the director and, well, pretty much everything except the hero’s cool customized car.
The comedy-action movie, finally, has a solid release date set for January and Rogen, who stars in the title role and co-wrote the script, will bring the film to Comic-Con International in San Diego Friday to begin a public campaign to take the film’s street credibility from zero level to hero level. You’ll have to forgive the 28-year-old Vancouver native if he moans about all the other superhero properties that fly much faster and far straighter on their way to movie theaters.
“I had a meeting with Fox the other day and they have all of the ‘X-Men: First Class’ stuff up on the wall,” Rogen said of the Marvel Comics adaptation, which didn’t even have a director until May but is now being fast-tracked for release next summer. “Look at the way that movie is happening. It could have the worst script in the world, the worst director in the world — not that it does, but it could have those things — and there’s no way the movie isn’t going to get made. They have a release date already. Our movie was not like that.”
Rogen, sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant, sighed and then jabbed at his side salad with a fork. The actor, who shed plenty of his previous pudge to play the title role in “Hornet,” seems alternately irked and impressed by his struggle to make “Hornet,” which Rogen co-wrote with Evan Goldberg, who was also his scripting partner on the cinematic bong-hits “Superbad“ and “The Pineapple Express.”
“It’s been a project of passion and that’s the only reason we kept it going,” Rogen said. “If it wasn’t about passion it would have disappeared a long time ago. I’m excited for people to see it and I’m excited about taking it to San Diego.”
Rogen is quick to point that the Sony/Columbia Pictures release is no superhero parody; the goal (at least the final one, after all the changes) was to make a big movie with quality special effects and scenes of genuine peril but then introduce into that Rogen’s off-kilter character. Rogen and Gondry, in separate interviews, each cited the first “Lethal Weapon“ as a compass point for mixing thrills and humor, and Gondry also mentioned two of the Columbia’s signature films, “Men in Black” from 1997 and “Ghostbusters” from 1984, as instructive as far as tone. (Those two films, by the way, are the fourth- and fifth-highest grossing movies in the studio’s history; all three top spots on that list belong to the “Spider-Man” franchise.)
“It’s important to state that we’re not spoofing the superhero genre, we’re just doing a different version of the theme,” Gondry said this week at screening room on the Sony lot. “We’re trying to bring back a flavor that you could see in the 1980s movie that combines comedy and action, like a ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ where there is a relationship … there’s a great car chase but there is character and character-comedy. I think the stunts and the action are pretty awesome and we have the villain who is scary.”
In the movie, Rogen plays Britt Reid, a rich, shallow and self-possessed party animal who inherits the job of being a newspaper publisher when his father (Tim Wilkinson) dies suddenly. He also inherits the services of a somewhat mysterious employee named Kato (Taiwanese actor Jay Chou), whose martial arts and mechanical skills inspire the soul-searching Reid down an unlikely path of becoming a masked vigilante.
Christoph Waltz, coming off some Oscar-winning villainy in “Inglourious Basterds,” is the gangland bad guy, Edward James Olmos is a grizzled city editor and Cameron Diaz is Lenore “Casey” Case, an amateur gumshoe trying to puzzle out the story behind the new mystery man zooming around the city in a weaponized 1966 Imperial Crown.
The film will hit theaters in January, which is not exactly a sign of studio confidence — the conventional logic is that post-holiday weekends are the doldrums for Hollywood releases; “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” did make some box-office noise last year but it wasn’t a $130-million, 3D special-effects film.
If “Hornet” becomes a success story it may well start on Friday afternoon at Comic-Con. That’s where Rogen and Gondry will bring their project to fans for the first time with a panel that also features Goldberg, producer Neal Moritz and Waltz. The panel is in the hangar-sized Hall H — it seats 6,500 — where fans come ready to cheer but also don’t take kindly to Hollywood adaptations, such as “Catwoman,” that take liberties with established mythology and tone.
Even slimmed-down, Rogen isn’t the dashing, action hero-type — that’s where much of the film’s comedy comes from — but it might be a mistake to assume that Comic-Con fans will be riled up by that. Green Hornet has a far different heritage than Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine or the comic-book properties that moviegoers have met in recent years.
Superman introduced the modern concept of the superhero and the comic book in 1938, but, two years earlier, the Hornet was already wearing his mask and fighting gangland hoods — it’s just that he was doing it on the radio dial, not the printed page. The Hornet was created by Fran Striker (who also conceived of the Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon) and George W. Trendle and the premise was that handsome newspaper publisher Britt Reid prowled the streets at night as a vigilante with his faithful companion at his side in Kato, a driver, valet and friend who was originally portrayed as Japanese, a heritage that was changed by 1940, as the American perception of Japan changed considerably amid the dispatches from occupied China.
The Hornet was featured in movie serials in 1940 and 1941 but never really made much impact as a comic-book character and, in the modern consciousness. He is remembered primarily because of a brief stint on 1960s television and the legacy of one man: Bruce Lee. The San Francisco native who ushered in a new level of martial-arts awareness in America portrayed Kato on the ABC series “The Green Hornet,” which lasted all of 26 episodes; it started in September 1966 and was over before the Summer of Love even started. It was the first major role for Lee, however, and that still echoes. Many would be hard-pressed to name the handsome actor who played the Hornet (it was Van Williams) but what they do remember is Lee — who died in 1973 at age 32 — and the car, nicknamed the Black Beauty.
Hollywood, at least, remembered the Hornet and tried to revive him repeatedly. In the 1990s, a version with George Clooney and Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee, other than playing him in a film) never materialized and in the last decade filmmaker Kevin Smith was on-again, off-again with the project but it eventually faded away. Most interestingly, Gondry was attached to a late 1990s version, so his struggles with the Hornet preceed those of Rogen.
The director, who grew up in France, was drawn to the Hornet character first by the aura around Lee and his life. Later, he felt the property was one that would allow him to make a film that was decidedly not art-house. “My archetypes of a great movie are ‘Robocop’ and ‘Back to the Future,’ ” Gondry said. “Those are maybe my two favorites.”
For Rogen, the appeal of a “Hornet” movie was to put a volatile friendship in the center of an action comedy that had superhero layers on top of that.
“The two guys who try to be superheroes and their own relationship is really the biggest thing they have to overcome, that was always the idea,” Rogen said. “People are trying to kill them and all that, but if they can figure out how to work together, then the rest is fine…. When I say it was a passion project, it wasn’t passion for the Green Hornet as a character but a passion [by Evan and I] to make a movie about two guys trying to become superheroes. We could never crack it on our own, we tried for years. We had the first 10 pages of a dozen scripts that are very much like ‘Kick-Ass’ … then we came to the Green Hornet.”
Stephen Chow, the star and director of “Kung Fu Hustle,” signed on in September 2008 to direct the film and to play Kato but his version of funny didn’t sync up with Rogen and Goldberg’s. A week before Christmas it was announced that Chow would give up the directing reins but stay on as a co-star. By New Year’s Day, there were reports that Chow would say ciao altogether. Nicolas Cage also came and went as the villain and the entire project was written off by many industry observers.
The arrival of Gondry in February 2009 got the film back on track and Rogen credited the filmmaker with bringing interesting father-son elements to the story.
“He has a son, a 19-year-old, and that gave him some insights and we really expanded on all of that, and I think that was great,” Rogen said. “Also, while keeping in the tone of this realistic movie, we needed moments that kind of crack it open and visually explore things that don’t 100% fall into the realistic world as you and I view them. He wanted to keep it all real and it doesn’t reach for jokes. It’s more than any of our movies, not a strict comedy. It was hard to get to this point but now we’re here and it’s great.”
— Geoff Boucher
RECENT AND RELATED:
PHOTO GALLERY: Scenes from Comic-Con 2010
PHOTOS: Top, Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in “Green Hornet” (Columbia); Second, the green movement at Comic-Con International 2010 (Brian VandenBrug); Third, “Green Hornet” on 1960s television starred Van Williams and Bruce Lee (Los Angeles Times archives). Fourth, a vintage “Green Hornet” comic book. Fifth, the Black Beauty at last year’s Comic-Con (Columbia Pictures).
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